Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Taking on The Commissioner of the Revenue for Roanoke City . . .

I got a nastygram from The Commissioner of the Revenue for the City of Roanoke. Among the duties of that office is keeping track of who owns real estate so they can be taxed. I made a mistake in a deed -- the wrong tax map number was inserted  by accident; the rest of the deed was detailed and correct.  The Commissioner's office is refusing to transfer the tax records because of that error. They're wrong. Following is an adaptation of my letter (I removed identifing info and added stuff to clarify it for y'all)
First, I’ll admit to a scrivener’s error in the tax number in the top margin, first page, of a deed prepared by this office. I should have caught it; the closing agent should have caught it. I congratulate and respect The Commissioner of the Revenue's (COR) staff for their sharp eye.

However, there is no authority in the Code of Virginia preventing the COR from correctly assessing the property in the name of the purchaser when there is clearly a minor scrivener’s error. That offices’ failure to correctly assess “the person to whom the [real estate] is chargeable with taxes” as to any property under Virginia Code 58.1-3281, when a reading of the four corners of the deed would disclose such, could be misfeasance.

When I called the Commissioner's office, his staff referred to Virginia Code 17.1-252. That section (1) makes Circuit Court Clerks require a Parcel ID Number in those jurisdictions that use them (Roanoke City is one) and (2) allows the Clerk to use that number in an indexing system (The Roanoke City Circuit Court Clerk’s office does not have such a system). Nothing in that statute applies to the duties of The Commissioner of the Revenue, although compliance does, usually, make their job easier.

In this case, the body of the deed clearly identifies the property and its title history. It even identifies it as a re-subdivision of two lots with tax numbers (actually, conveyance of a strip of land from one lot to another). In the thousands of real estate titles I have personally searched, and the thousands of other title reports I have personally reviewed, a single error did not void the title when the bulk of the information distinctly identified the property.

In addition, this policy implies that an instrument must be recorded to effect a transfer of property to “the person to whom the same is chargeable with taxes”. That, in my family’s knowledge, has never been the case. My uncle, Judge John M. Hart, was The Commissioner of the Revenue at one time (How he got there is a Rossiferous story in itself!). I know of instances where a deed was delivered, accepted, but the buyer neglected or refused to record it; the property was nevertheless taxed to the buyer because the then Commissioner of the Revenue properly determined the buyer to be “chargeable with taxes”.  I also recall that, as Escheator, my father and I would provide a list of purchasers to the City so that they could be assessed the taxes coming due on the properties they bought.

Hopefully this will get cleared up so that the purchaser doesn't suffer because of the COR's office. I've talked to other attorneys who have had similar experiences; it'll be interesting to see what happens.

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